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London — Loadings of CPC blend crude oil from the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk hit a record 1.52 million b/d in December, propelled by Kazakhstan's burgeoning Kashagan field, data from the terminal and pipeline operator showed Friday.

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The Caspian Pipeline Consortium said loadings hit a calendar year record of 61.08 million mt in 2018, equivalent to an average 1.32 million b/d, adding that the loadings were at the "most accelerated tempo" in December.

CPC is Kazakhstan's main crude export route to international markets, and the pipeline across southern Russia to Novorossiisk has undergone major expansion.

CPC crude is increasingly finding its way to Asia, partly because of countries such as South Korea diversifying away from Iranian crude under the pressure of US sanctions against Tehran.

In November, South Korean imports of CPC Blend rose 22.6% on the year to 5.25 million barrels.

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The CPC consortium said 55 tankers had departed Novorossiisk in December, bringing the full-year total to 558. Overall in 2018, 89% of the CPC crude loaded was of Kazakh origin, the remainder being from Russia.

Kazakhstan's Tengiz field, operated by a Chevron-led consortium, remained the single biggest contributor last year, at 28.7 million mt, with Kashagan overtaking what was the second biggest source, Karachaganak.

Kashagan, which came on stream in 2016 after an abortive earlier start-up, contributed 13.2 million mt last year, and Karachaganak provided 10.3 million mt.

Kashagan was expected to reach production levels of 370,000 b/d in the second half of this year, Kazakh energy minister Kanat Bozumbayev said in comments to the Interfax news agency posted on the ministerial website Friday.

CONSUMPTION OUTLOOK

Average January loadings are set to be 1.36 million b/d, according to a copy of the loading schedule. International exports are also dependent on conditions in the Bosporus, which has been subject to repeated hold-ups this month, partly due to snow.

CPC crude has been competing with traditional Middle Eastern sources, despite some refiners having concerns about the oil's acidity. South Korean refiners paid an average outright price of $73.29/b for Kazakh crude imported between January and October 2018, and $71.84/b for US crude received in the same period, according to state-owned Korea National Oil Corp. These figures include freight, insurance, tax and other charges.

By comparison the monthly outright official selling prices for Abu Dhabi's light sour Murban crude loaded during January-October last year averaged $74.34/b, Platts data showed.

-- Nick Coleman, nick.coleman@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Robert Perkins, newsdesk@spglobal.com